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A haunting, hilarious talk on the beach with George Saunders

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Tuesday, August 28

I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts.

We passed a Tico cemetery at some point while Jeff was driving me from the airport in San José to Uvita, and I noticed the graves there were above ground, a cluster of concrete, casket-sized houses scattered about, similar to the way they do it in New Orleans (though not as grandiose).

I read somewhere that Ticos celebrate El Día de Los Muertos. One of the most moving things I’ve ever seen was in a Mexico City cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Mexicans were there, clustered around the graves of their loved ones, eating their favorite foods, singing their favorite songs. The ground was a veritable carpet of marigold flowers. I used the word “celebrate” above deliberately. The Day of the Dead isn’t about mourning. It’s joyous. Bittersweet.

Sitting on the beach yesterday, I watched the Pacific roll ashore at low tide, but the roar of the surf wasn’t the only thing in my ears. I had my AirPods in, playing a New York Public Library Podcast recorded in June. George Saunders, one of my favorite writers, was being interviewed by Paul Holdengräber, who asks Saunders if he believes in ghosts. The writer says yes almost immediately, but then provides this nuance :

I certainly believe in ghosts as a literary thing because they’re here,. I mean, in other words, which of us, sitting here, doesn’t have several dead people whispering lovingly or harshly in your ear, and which of us doesn’t sense ourselves as one of those people eventually. Again, in terms of making a scientific view of the universe, you can’t discount the dead. They don’t disappear in any sense. They’re in your neurons. When I use them it’s mostly to say, if i just write a story in a realistic frame, I feel like I’m not quite telling the whole truth — that we all carry dead people around with us, and we carry the prospect of our own death around with us so that, somehow, has to be brought into play a little bit. Plus, they’re fun. They’re a riot.

I keep thinking the book I’m writing is really a ghost story. But I have no interest in cranking out a work of Gothic fiction, and I don’t have the talent to pull off something like Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (which was absolutely brilliant). But the quote above got my wheels turning. There’s something there. I just need to figure out what it is …

(BTW: If you’re into podcasts and literature, I highly recommend that Saunders interview. There were times when I was laughing out loud as I watched the waves. He’s hilarious, brilliant, accessible, yet grounded and down-to-earth.)

As I walked Playa Colonia, I wondered why I’m not hitting this beach every morning. It was low tide, peeling back a long stretch of sand that had been under water just a few hours earlier. I looked for shells, flotsam, jetsam, whatever, but I’d stopped for breakfast on the way and other beachcombers had beaten me to the punch. All that was left were fragments of sand dollars. A washed up stingray. A single, pearly pink shell, which I picked up and pocketed.

I passed novice surfers struggling to master the waves and was delighted to see several people walking with their dogs, including a small white terrier who had no use for the sandpipers scurrying ahead of him.

The dogs here seem well-fed and well cared for overall. I encountered several on my way to breakfast. Most wore collars and all were friendly or indifferent, more focused their morning routines than some random passing Gringo.

It’s hard not to love a place that loves its dogs.

After a simple dinner of pineapple that I picked here on the property and a papaya that would make my umbrella cockatoo drool, I retreated to a deck with a Pacific view to listen to podcasts and battle my book. It wasn’t long before the rain came in torrents, so loud on the metal roof I couldn’t hear the podcast, prompting me to hit pause until it passed. Is this what the rainy season is like? Sweet, clear mornings that yield to stifling humidity in late afternoon and an atmospheric tantrum. to end the day. I can live with this. But I suspect the worst is yet to come. If April is the cruelest month, September is the soggiest. At least here in Central America.

This rain is having an impact on my evening vespers. For the second night in a row, a deluge canceled Sunset at the Shack. No regrets. I’m enjoying the rains, especially the calm that descends after, when crickets, cicadas, frogs and other night creatures rise up to fill the night with their own buzzing din, singing me to sleep in the Treehouse.

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Dia de Los Muertos

Scene at San Gregorio Cemetery near Mexico City

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.” 
— Malcolm Lowry

Anita seemed perplexed.

Lara, Emma and I were all standing in the middle of San Gregorio Cemetery with tears streaming down our cheeks. It was all so beautiful. So sad. So poignant.

We were surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican families who had flocked to the cemetery on Nov. 1 to remember the dead. Mariachis played. Candles flickered. A glowing orange snowfall of marigold petals covered everything. Incense drifted through the air, kindling pungent memories of my altar boy days at St. Anselm Catholic church.

It had taken us three tedious hours to reach this graveyard on the southern edge of Mexico City. The traffic was insane. Everyone was out celebrating the dead. I wondered if we should just give up and turn back. I’m glad we didn’t.

I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. Every time I saw a stunningly cool post card, I thought of my recently departed friend Barb Page. If only I could send her one more card, one more random reminder that I was thinking of her.

The frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zocalo conjured memories of Phil Pollard, who I was shocked to learn had died suddenly while we were in Mexico. Phil was one of those defining personalities of our years in Knoxville, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans.

“We’re all having a little funeral in our souls right now, too,” Knoxville’s Matt Morelock wrote on his Facebook page after Phil died. “He’d reject the mourning and admonish us to celebrate and get off the damned computer and do somethin’ freaky! I think it’s our duty now. I’m going skinny dipping in broad daylight.”

Yes. Exactly. Mexico City was my skinny dipping in broad daylight. The flamboyant colors. The persistent DayGlo presence of the deceased. No time for a funereal remembrance of things past. This was a rave.

The entire trip had somehow seemed fated. Lara and I discussed it jokingly over a few glasses of wine several months ago. We realized it had been a long time since we took a vacation. We should do something, anything, to get away.

Another trip to Jamaica? Not quite right.

“How about Mexico City?’ I asked. Our friend Anita and her daughter, Emma, had recently moved there, so we’d visit with an insider’s perspective. And Dia de los Muertos was coming. We’ve collected Latin American art for a long time, including a fair amount of works celebrating the Day of the Dead. But we’d never actually visited during the holiday itself.

The next morning, when the wine had worn off, the idea hadn’t. We cleared the dates with Anita, booked the trip and were on our way. Looking back, I realize it was inevitable. Irresistible.

Standing in San Gregorio Cemetery, watching Mexicans embrace death in the flickering light as something familiar and unavoidable, the tears came. Not mournful tears. Sweet tears spiced with the memory of lives lived fully.

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Monster cars in Mexico City

Monster Cars in Mexico CityAt first I thought it was my imagination. Too much Day of the Dead. A car swirling around El Ángel on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma had a distinctly dead look.

Then another one. A VW Bug this time.

And another.

As a guide explained the significance of this angel erected to commemorate Mexico’s War of Independence, a pack of Monster Cars roared through the roundabout with reckless abandon. And they were gone.

I was still pondering the odd vision of those ghostly autos later as we walked up Paseo de la Reforma. After walking several blocks, we came upon them, idling at the curb, honking, hooting, bringing traffic to a rubbernecking standstill. What an amazing, random Mexico City moment.

Sadly, the photos just don’t do it justice.